Saturday, December 28, 2019

Christmas rockets!

The Christmas rockets start appearing on the table! (Click to enlarge)
Back in October, I announced a contest for members of HARA - design and build a stable and safe Christmas-themed rocket in time for the December club meeting. Even though time did not allow me to build my design (which couldn't have won anyway, since I was providing the prize), there were a decent number of Christmas rockets that showed up at the meeting in the Space and Rocket Center's boardroom. There was a BT-60 based rocket wrapped in wrapping paper, a rocket with a hand painted holiday decor, a flying Christmas wreath, a Christmas candle, a flying Christmas present and two Christmas trees (one with LED lights), a "snowman on a stick", and a holiday-converted Estes Solo. Martin built the latter as part of an elaborate Christmas diorama, and even composed a poem for the occasion. This made it easy for the judges, who awarded the Apogee Katana to Martin without the need to deliberate. By the way, the other entries were great - it's just that they were overwhelmed by the complexity and craftsmanship of Martin's entry. There was also no need to prove the stability of his model, as the Solo has flown many times by many people. As for the stability of the others, well, let's just say that the launch at Pegasus field a couple of days later (Pearl Harbor Day) had its interesting moments...

The judges look over some of the entries
(Click to enlarge).
Martin's winning entry (Click to enlarge).
December 7 was beautiful day to fly - sunny, perfect temperature, and practically no wind. It was as if Mother Nature was granting us great flying weather as an early Christmas present, and we seized the opportunity. Lots of rockets took to the air, but I'm going to focus on the Christmas rockets in this post - after all, they are custom designed for the season!

My venerable Polar Express started the launch a bit after 10 AM. Even though he was not riding a custom bird, Santa has flown in December over the past several years and I was not going to let him off the hook this Christmas. The black powder Quest A6-4 provided him with a decent ride and his rocket sled descended safely to the ground under parachute, ready to be refitted for next year's journey. Duane followed with his "Snowman on a stick", which powered off the pad under a D12-3. A straight flight, but the shock cord broke and the sustainer tumbled to Earth, breaking a fin upon impact. Easily repairable.

My Polar Express lifts off (Click to enlarge).Duane sets up his "Snowman on a stick"
(Click to enlarge).
Josh launched his flying Christmas Wreath next. It proved to be less than stable with an Estes D12 - maybe the motor should have been mounted higher to move the CG farther forward?  However, its flight was straight when compared to that of Vince's E15-powered Christmas tree, which did loops around the sky before hitting the ground. That made two unstable Christmas rockets out of the three flown - not looking good for the master designers!

Josh's Christmas Wreath lifts off Duane's pad
(Click to enlarge).
Vince's Christmas Tree starts its dance in the sky
(Click to enlarge).
The last two Christmas rockets to take to the air were Josh's Christmas candle and Patrick's flying Christmas present. Josh redeemed himself with the flight of the candle, which was arrow-straight on an Estes C6 motor. Patrick's boxy rocket had us both excited and scared, as it was loaded with an H motor of the largest impulse we could fly without a waiver. Such critters are very rare at Pegasus, where G motors are uncommon, so you can imagine the anticipation around the pads as Patrick hooked up that beastie. We needn't have worried - the flying Christmas present put in a perfect flight, riding that H motor's beautiful pillar of fire up into the blue. It put a perfect coda on the December 7 flights of the Christmas rockets.

Josh's Christmas candle takes to the air
(Click to enlarge).
Patrick shows off his flying Christmas present
(Click to enlarge).
The Christmas present in flight (Click to enlarge).
This contest seemed to be enjoyed by all, and I was happy by the number and variety of the rockets. I think I will do it again next year. Maybe I will even find time to build a rocket for it - the Polar Express needs company!

Saturday, November 30, 2019

A BT-20 sized, bluetooth altimeter for $20? Take my money, please!

Nifty product and some very cool upcoming products from This dude has the right attitude!

From his FaceBook post:

As promised, I wanted to share some info on what is in store for 2020 from FlightSketch.
First up, it’s been a long road getting the Mini to production and at every step it seems like someone has asked “why doesn’t it do ........” And well, there were a few awesome features that just wouldn't fit. In order to meet the size and price targets for the Mini, a few things got left out. The biggest being deployment events. So, we are announcing the FlightSketch Sport. All of the capability of the Mini plus a 2 channel deployment controller. It’s the same width as the Mini (fits in 18mm tube) and 2" long. Single cell LiPo operation opens up dual deploy to many more models. The first flight on the sport was a BT-55 model on a C6-5!
Example flight:

Second, almost as many people have asked for the opposite - an even smaller altimeter for competition use. We shaved 30% off the mass of the original FS Mini but the question was still “how low can we go?” Introducing the FlightSketch Competition. A sub-gram recording altimeter that is just 8mm wide and with all of the features of the Mini including Bluetooth. Small enough for record setting flights in the smallest models, we will be pursuing NAR and FAI approval for contest use.
And one more thing... like many others, we’re tired of spending hours searching for models after landing. Even low power models in tall grass can be impossible to find. It’s (almost) 2020, why can’t I just get a map to my rocket? Introducing FlightSketch SST - the Super Simple Tracker. Still just 0.6 inches wide, fits in an 18mm tube and plots your rocket’s position in real time on Google Maps. Uses Ublox GPS with LoRa radio technology for incredible range without external antennas. We maxed out our line of sight test capability at 16.5 miles with still a few dB of link budget left. And most importantly, it will be the most affordable tracking system available. Screen shots show the range test and an actual flight. 
Stay tuned for more updates. Please let us know what features you would like to see!
Thanks for all of your support, looking forward to another amazing year!

Click to enlarge.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Caught launching rockets...

Now under construction on the old Pegasus field, the Blue Origin rocket engine plant is very big and impressive; I am always amazed at how quickly these buildings are built. They seem to spring up overnight, like the walls just popped out of the ground. I hope Blue Origin give tours once the plant becomes operational, as I'm sure there is going to be some cool stuff to see within those walls.

Anyway, yesterday Duane brought to my attention an article about the plant construction that appeared in local paper and on He pointed out that there was an aerial photo of the plant, which captured us launching rockets on the field across the street earlier this month. I looked it up on the Internet, and sure enough you can see Duane's SUV out in the field. Pretty cool.

You never know who is going to be watching when you fly rockets!

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Designing a Christmas rocket...

There are two holidays which really get a rocketeer's creative juices flowing - Halloween and Christmas. I'm a little late for Halloween - though I do have a few rockets in my fleet with the appropriate decor - but it's not too late for Christmas designs and builds. There's a very long tradition here - for example, one could take a kit like the Estes Spaceman (first released back in 1963)


and turn it into something like this (model by JeffyJeep on Ye Olde Rocket Forum):

Click to enlarge.
or one could use the parts from an Estes Baby Bertha:

to create the Polar-1 (from my fleet):

Click to enlarge.
You get the idea... Anyway, my club, HARA, is having a Christmas rocket design contest this year. Winner gets a very nice Apogee Katana high power dual deploy rocket kit, suitable for Level 2 certification (or just impressing folks). I'm not eligible to win (as it was my idea and I'm providing the prize), but I figured I'd join the others in the fun - designing Christmas rockets is an awesome way to pass some free time!

So what to do? Well, I'm not the biggest fan of the popular flying Christmas tree (issues with installing a recovery system), nor did I favor the flying snowflake saucer route. Instead, I chose something quick and simple...

A BT-50 based flying Christmas candle.

This was easy-peasy to design in Open Rocket, and I am pretty pleased with the results - I particularly like the holly leaf fins.

Click to enlarge.
However, it seems a little bit on the boring side. So I hit upon the idea to use the LED flame from one of these as the nose cone:

Click to enlarge.
Stick this puppy in a BT-50 coupler with a small lithium watch battery and and a tiny switch, and I will have a pretty neat light up nose cone for my candle rocket.

The build starts this weekend - stay tuned!

Monday, October 28, 2019

A soggy start to the flying season...

Members of the Auburn rocket team awaiting the start of the launch (Click to enlarge).
Saturday October 19 saw the first HARA high power launch of our winter flying season. It was supposed to be on October 12, but we postponed it for a week due to lack of a waiver and a crummy weather forecast. On Friday night, the forecast for the 19th was also looking pretty lousy, but the club decided to press ahead with the launch - rocket mania is a hard thing to dampen, even with faced with the prospect of rain. I prepped four rockets, and Duane readied his tribe of Cherokees for their anticipated flights the next day. It would be good to fly on the big Woodville field and hear the roar of some high power motors once more.

Funny how bad weather can put things into perspective...

John gives the flyer's briefing (Click to enlarge).
We arrived on the field just before 10 AM. Quite a crowd was assembled, including many, many students from Auburn eager to certify (I understand their rocket team has over 50 members - wow!). The clouds loomed low, not more than 2500 feet above ground level, a fact that John pointed out as he gave the customary flyer's briefing right before the launch began. Even though our waiver was for 12,000 feet, it is forbidden to launch Class 2 (high power) rockets into clouds, so the altitude of the cloud deck set the maximum allowed altitude for the rockets - a bummer for some, but not for me, as none of my birds would even get close to 2500 feet.

Vince takes his NCR Eliminator out to the pad (Click to enlarge).
After the briefing, the launchings commenced, albeit slowly due to a slight drizzle that began right after the range was declared open. Patrick launched his low power 3D printed "Example" rocket, which flew very well and showed nary a sign of melting after recovery. Josh flew a Fliskits ACME Spitfire and Duane put up his first Cherokee, which rose into the cloudy sky powered by 3 E12-6 motors. The most spectacular flight I witnessed was that of Vince's nicely painted North Coast Rocketry Eliminator. Its Estes F15 motor blew out the nozzle upon ignition, causing it to climb all of 6 inches off the pad on a spectacular pillar of fire. It then settled back down and belched smoke like a dragon for several seconds. In true Vanguard fashion, it popped the chute after the delay ran out and the ejection charge fired - at least that part worked. Chuck then launched his Dynasoar "Man in High Castle" rocket glider on Aerotech E's - the first flight went a bit squirrelly due to some control issues, but flight #2 was very cool, with a nice glide and landing.

Josh's ACME Spitfire clears the rod (Click to enlarge)
Vince's Eliminator reaches max altitude
(Click to enlarge).
Duane's Cherokee streaks skyward on 3 E12 motors
(Click to enlarge).
Chuck's "Man in High Castle" rocket glider coming in for a landing (Click to enlarge).

Video of the "Man in High Castle" flight

And me? Well, I was huddled under Duane's canopy, listening to the rain hit the top of the tent and moving around to avoid the leaks. The rain had intensified, and I had decided there was no way I was gonna launch my rockets in that mess. It's one thing for a rocket to die an honorable death by fire or ballistic impact, or be lost on a strong wayward breeze. But to collapse in a heap of wet cardboard, well, that's a fate I could not bear my beauties to suffer. So I left them nice and dry in the car, as more daring souls trekked out into the rain to load their rockets on the pads. Duane felt similar - after his first Cherokee flight, he decided it was too rainy to fly the others. As a matter of fact, it was getting too rainy under his canopy, with all the leaks.

So we packed up and left the field, after a stay of only a couple of hours. Mother Nature proved to be too much for us that Saturday.

Folks staying dry under the LCO tent (Click to enlarge).
But a few hardy souls stayed on - I understand there were a couple of qualification attempts, at least one of which was successful. Also, Chris Short of CS Rocketry made the long trip up from down south to support our launch, and I hope people bought a bunch of stuff from him - I know Duane acquired a few motors for the next launch. HARA is lucky to have Chris show up at our launches, as not many vendors would have come out in face of the lousy weather forecast.

Here's hoping for better weather at the November launch!

Friday, October 25, 2019

No party crashers allowed...

Estes did some pretty cool stuff back in the day - like launching one of their scale Saturn V models at halftime during the Blue Bonnet Bowl. This was seen by a fairly large TV audience, but a much larger crowd would have seen a launch of another of their models planned for just after the Apollo 11 launch. Unfortunately it never happened, and the only folks that knew about it were the relative few who read this blurb on page 23 of the September 1969 Model Rocketry Magazine:

You see? Even during the glorious height of the Apollo program, the government could be a party pooper. A shame - this would have been really cool!

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

An important rocketry need is disappearing...

Every rocket club that has members who want to fly high power needs one thing to be successful:

A decently-large (many hundreds of acres) field from which the rockets can be launched.

It sounds like a simple thing, and in a country as big as the USA, one would think that rocketeers would have no problem getting access to large plowed fields and sod farms for their launches. It's only a once a month thing, after all, and surely there are many large landowners who would support budding space enthusiasts in their hobby, right?


It turns out to be terribly hard to find a suitable launch field, and even when found, almost as difficult to hang on to one. All over the country, rocket clubs are losing access to areas that they have launched on for years, causing their members to undertake long and often fruitless searches to locate another launch site. Over the past couple of years, many clubs here in the SouthEast (HARA, the Music City Missile Club, NEFAR in Jacksonville, FL and Phoenix Missile Works, to name some examples) have found themselves in this situation - the same can be said for elsewhere in the country.  In my opinion, this decrease in the number of launch fields constitutes one of the biggest risks to our hobby. Given that rocketry is an incredibly safe hobby with an impeccable track record, it is sometimes hard for us to understand why this is happening. But being an old geezer who has seen a few things in his years of flying, I have formulated a few opinions on this matter, some of which are actually backed up with facts. And I'm going to share them with you, because I must.

1) Why is it so hard to find a high power launch site?

There are plenty of large fields around, so it usually boils down to finding a landowner who is receptive to letting up to a 100 or so folks launch on his land once per month. The current era of year-round plantings makes this difficult, because no landowner is going to let you fly rockets on his/her field of crops. No way, no how. That knocks out some prospects right there; most of the others who are still in the running say no because of one simple, little word:


Rocketry is over 60 years old, and by now, practically everyone in the USA has seen or flown a model rocket, maybe in school. Model rockets cause landowners little concern; they are familiar with them, and they generally perceive the risk of a model rocket causing a fire - whether right or wrong - as very low. So a lot of landowners have no trouble with an occasional model rocket launch on their property. They are something they know a bit about.

High power rockets are a different matter.

They are big beasties with loud, fire belching motors that shoot thousands of feet into the sky, very different from the little Estes rockets that go "pffft" and emit a little black smoke. We rocketeers love the power and awe of a high power rocket leaving the pad, but farmers look at that spectacle and see fields or trees burning (not to mention cattle disturbed or a barn or house damaged by a ballistic return). The enviable safety record of high power rocketry means nothing when stacked against a 6 foot tall rocket leaving the pad riding a pillar of flame several feet high.

Yes, I'm being dramatic, but I actually have personal experience here. I was talking to a farmer over in adjacent Jackson County about HARA conducting some launches on his property. He was initially very receptive, even excited - until he saw some videos of high power launches. These were no videos of CATOs or rockets coming in ballistic; they were clips of normal high power launches that HARA members have performed for decades. After looking at these, he said "I could let you fly those small things, but these big ones - well, they'll set fire to the whole county." End of discussion.

There are other reasons for not allowing rockets to be flown on property, but I am convinced that fire is the biggie, especially in this time of climate change when many areas are becoming increasingly dry. 

2) Why is it difficult to hang on to a launch site?

Lots of reasons here. After supporting club launches for many years, the landowner may simply become tired of those folks showing up every month. Or he/she may decide to go to year-round growing, or sell the land to another individual or group that is not receptive to rockets flying off the property. A sad cause, but fortunately less common than the previous ones, is behavior on the part of individual flyers that results in damage to the property or the violation of agreed-upon procedures (like no driving on the field). The important thing to realize here is that sooner or later statistics catches up with you; if you have a decent size club that launches monthly over a period of years, an "incident" is almost unavoidable. In HARA's case, we had a piece of equipment that was damaged (to the tune of a couple of thousand dollars) when it sucked up a nose cone full of lead weight (which was from a mid power rocket, btw - not high power). We paid for the damage and were able to fly at our Manchester site for a few more years, but this did not go over well with the owners. And, even with hindsight, I do not know what we could have done to find that little nose cone amongst all that acreage. My club treasures its launch sites, and takes very good care of the property during our launch activities (the owner of our current field says that he cannot tell we have been there after we close a launch - there is no debris, no paper, no anything), but the law of averages catches up to even the best sooner or later. It's all a question of how bad it is, and sometimes even a minor incident is enough to persuade a weary landowner to deny access.

And, if they are in an area that is becoming increasingly dry, there is always the fire worry.

Sorry this post is so long, but I felt the need to write some of my thoughts down. I see that declining numbers of launch sites as a kind of implosion problem - the loss of fields drives more high power rocketeers to the few available fields, which now have more flights, increasing the chances of an incident that results in denial of access. This cycle keeps repeating until we are down to just a couple of fields nationwide, out at Black Rock Desert or Lucerne, where the only thing that catches fire is you as you search the playa for your rocket.

It is a nightmare I have on occasion.